The Powderfinger effect: Why the blokes from Brisbane remain irreplaceable

Why does Australia still hold a candle for a band that broke up a decade ago?

Some Australian acts are just too big to easily replace. Multi-platinum worldwide superstars The Seekers split in 1968 and it wasn’t until Architecture In Helsinki formed in 2000 that we filled the national ‘band that looks like librarians’ gap. John Farnham proved so irreplaceable after his farewell tour that he was forced to embark on multiple subsequent farewell tours to make up for his own absence. And even INXS struggled and failed to fill the void left by INXS.

And while there has been a Biggest Band In The Country since the Easybeats, it’s harder to imagine another one emerging out of our splintered contemporary musicscape. For one thing, there’s a yawning chasm between the artists who top the Hottest 100 and the ones which get daytime radio play. The likes of Ocean Alley and 5 Seconds Of Summer have dedicated fanbases who could pack venues in those halcyon pre-COVID times, but they still have nothing on the adoration which the nation afforded five unassuming blokes from Brisbane.

There is a Powderfinger-shaped hole in our nation’s soul, is what I’m saying – and Australian music has so far failed to throw up another guitar-slinging combo to fill it. And this is an issue of masculinity as much as music, because Powderfinger were also the last band to represent that very particular strain of Australian rock which can be summed up as Music For Straight Men To Hug To.

In this, they carried the torch lit by previous bands reeking of unquestioned masculinity like Hunters & Collectors and Cold Chisel. Indeed, ‘These Days’ is the only song that may have inspired more drunk men to take their friends in an affectionate headlock, gaze blearily into their eyes and bellow, “I fucken love you, mate” than ‘Flame Trees’.

I’d love this to somehow indicate that Australia’s gender roles had progressed to such a significant degree that men no longer consider it suspiciously feminine to show emotion. But the reality is probably that no rock band stepped up to the challenge after the ’Finger snapped.

Eskimo Joe seemed ready to take up the mantle but stumbled when the opportunity came, and hardcore bands – even massive ones like Parkway Drive – don’t have the same mainstream reach.

Thus, the hunger remains. That Powderfinger’s absence is keenly felt by the Australian public was proved when an unsubstantiated rumour spread like the wildfires which are presumably only weeks away: that the band would reunite to play at the AFL Grand Final which was being held at… the Gabba? That still just sounds wrong.

powderfinger 2001 getty images
Credit: Scott Barbour/Getty Images

And it seemed plausible because the band had already reunited recently, albeit over the internet, for the One Night Lonely livestream in May. That said, the fact that Powderfinger were clearly all in different places around the country might have already indicated the difficulty of getting members out of lockdown hotspots, even for something as unquestionably important as playing old songs at a game of footy.

In any case, the rumour turned out to be false, with an apologetic but official denial from the band – but it did absolutely change the subject from “the AFL Grand Final is being held in Queensland? Do… do they even have a team there? They know it’s not an NRL thing, right?” So, you know, job done.

To be fair, the timing would have been perfect, since we’re now marking ‘Odyssey Number Five’’s 20th anniversary, with the album predictably getting a birthday deluxe reissue. But then again, despite being two decades old, it’s never actually left. ‘O#5’ is still omnipresent on the airwaves in a way that few Australian albums are, and ‘My Happiness’, ‘My Kind Of Scene’ and (especially) ‘These Days’ are part of the aural fabric of our nation.

“Powderfinger had done the rock ’n’ roll work that allowed them to risk being tender”

The reason it has remained a bloke-hug cultural touchstone is that the album marked the point where the band had done the rock ’n’ roll work that allowed them to risk being tender. 1996’s ‘Double Allergic’ had consolidated them as a rock band, and if 1998’s ‘Internationalist’ had slower moments like ‘The Day You Come’, they were still amply offset by bangers like ‘Don’t Wanna Be Left Out’. From a new act, ‘My Happiness’ would have been dismissed as a nice-but-twee Travis-esque song with a wibbly-wobbly guitar riff, but audiences – especially dude audiences – were familiar enough with Powderfinger’s work to hear it in context with the rest of the catalogue.

Then again, maybe Powderfinger were simply the last guitar band to matter because of timing, and that by 2010 rock was a genre still shambling about only because no-one had yet successfully double-tapped its zombie brain.

And the biggest support of this theory is that there is still one Australian act who straddle the triple j and Nova listening demographics, have cross-gender appeal, are all about drunken mate-hugs, and which your dad still plays in the car while droning on about seeing them at the Big Day Out before you kids came along and made him boring.

Congratulations, Hilltop Hoods. You are now officially Powderfinger.

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